Business: Electronic retail

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 October, 2012, 9:31am

In recent years online retailers have created fresh and inventive ways to draw in shoppers, ranging from pre-order trunk shows at Moda Operandi to Groupon-style flash sales at Plukka. ZaoZao, which was launched last week by friends Vicky Wu and Ling Cai, helps emerging designers raise funds before they even begin production on any of their designs.

"The project was inspired by Ling's sister, who is a design student. She was talking about how hard it is to get support as a young designer. I had funded a project on [crowdfunding platform] Kickstarter a year ago and we thought it would be cool to incorporate elements of that into an e-commerce site that is devoted to up-and-coming designers," says Wu, a neuroscience graduate from Harvard University.

Dubbed a "social pretail" site, ZaoZao looks like any online boutique with its edit of fashion and lifestyle items. The difference is in how it works. Most of the items are limited in quantity and only up for grabs for a specific time period (on average 21 days). If there's enough demand, the item will go into production and customers will receive their final product within four weeks (shipping is free worldwide). If not, the project will be removed from the site.

"There are many perks for the designer. We help them market their brand while eliminating problems like excess inventory. They only produce something that shoppers have pre-ordered and paid for upfront. Very little risk is involved, plus they can experiment with designs and see how customers respond," says Cai. "For consumers, they get access to interesting and unique pieces while supporting emerging designers."

At the moment, ZaoZao showcases the work of five to six designers, although Wu says that they plan to integrate 50 more in the next few months. Initially, 350 designers were sourced personally by the duo (Cai previously worked as a buyer at Gucci) through various means such as design schools, incubation offices, trade fairs and word of mouth. While each of the brands have been approved by them personally, the plan is for prospective designers to upload their designs to the website themselves, subject to the duo's approval.

"Initially, it was important for us to view their samples first hand and watch them make their garments or products. Nothing is generic or mass-produced and all the designers have an interesting back story. Everything we choose, we would buy personally," says Wu.

"A big part of our business is accountability. We've had interest from students in London and New York but we can't get on a plane and visit their studio. Because of that we mainly feature Asian talent as we are able to connect personally with them. That being said, we want to be open to everyone," she adds.

Some of brands on the site include Cycle from Japan, which produces eco-friendly products such as skateboards and hats made from recycled denim, glass and kimonos, and funky jewellery by Singaporean designer Mandy Wu. Cai also highlights streetwear inspired clothing brand Fan by Fan, which was designed by a New York Fashion Institute of Technology graduate.

And while fashion dominates the offerings, Vicky Wu says that there are plans to expand into lifestyle items such as homeware, gadgets and design products. Prices range from HK$200 to HK$3,000.

"We love shopping at little boutiques in Soho, for example, but everything is always so expensive because of the rents," she says. "This way we offer unique and beautifully made products that customers can still afford."